Fire that began in furnace destroys church building

No one hurt in blaze

investigation continues

February 01, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Hodge Phifer had just fixed a leaky roof at his wife's church and was taking a rest when an explosion jarred him from his seat. He looked out a window and saw flames leaping from the second story.

His wife, the Rev. Ammie Phifer, was at the couple's home three miles away in Northeast Baltimore when her telephone rang shortly after 11: 30 Sunday night. The woman caller shouted: "Your church is on fire!"

"I said, `No it isn't, my husband's there.' " The caller shouted again: "Flames are coming out all the windows!"

Hodge Phifer had made it out unscathed. But the three-alarm fire destroyed the cinder-block building -- an abandoned warehouse that the Phifers turned into Renew Hope Christian Community Church 14 years ago.

Fire investigators attributed the blaze to a faulty oil-fed furnace on the second floor. Why it blew up remains under investigation, but the powerful blast caused an intense fire that wasn't extinguished until after 1 a.m. By then, walls had cracked, the roof caved and city housing officials condemned the building.

"Everything is gone," Hodge Phifer said as he removed charred books, cooking utensils and desks from what used to be a day care center for 20 children on the first floor of the building near East 25th Street and Garrett Avenue.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman, said damage is estimated at $100,000.

Firefighters had to negotiate snow and ice-covered streets to get to the 40-by-80-foot structure. They were prevented from getting to the back -- where the fire was concentrated -- because an elevated railroad line blocks the way.

Cracked walls and a buckling ceiling prevented firefighters from going inside to douse flames. "We resorted to an exterior attack," Torres said, which is usually used when a structure cannot be saved.

Ammie Phifer said she started the church, which has about 80 members, in 1986 in what was an abandoned warehouse. The outside remained nondescript, except for a welcome sign and a cross hanging above the front door.

Phifer said the inside was beautifully decorated with stained glass and chandeliers. The worship area was on the second floor. The first floor was the day care center.

Parishioners said they will look for a temporary space to hold Sunday services.

Yesterday afternoon, the Phifers and friends gathered to salvage what they could. They were in good spirits despite the dirty work of pulling soot-covered chairs, toys and Bibles from the rubble. One item that survived without a mark: a box of cereal.

Hodge Phifer, 63, shook his head as he recounted his long night. He had fixed a leak caused by the piling snow and bailed out a small flood. "I got tired," he said. "I took my shoes off and was relaxing."

Jolted by the loud noise, he first ran to a window to check his car, which was parked on the street. Seeing no damage, he returned to his seat. He then started to walk upstairs and was met by a plume of smoke.

Phifer ran to a window and saw flames above. By then, a neighbor was banging on the door warning of the fire. He got out safely. His wife, not knowing whether her husband had escaped, drove as quickly as she could on slippery streets to her church.

"I didn't think it could be that bad," she said. "Then I got here and all I could think of was, `What am I going to do on Sunday? What are we going to do?' Somehow, I want to rebuild."

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